Just Starting Out? Stop Looking for a Screenwriting Agent

One of the questions that I am asked most often, second only to “how do I sell my screenplay?” is: “how do I get an agent?”

Here’s the thing: In my mind, I’ve been pretty vocal about the answer to this. I feel like I’ve screamed it off the proverbial rooftops, included it in blogposts and lectures but… it seems to not have landed. Or, alternately, other information out there in the ether continues to send writers down the wrong path. Which is why I realized the time had come to write this blogpost and put it all out there.  

So if you clicked into this blogpost wanting to get a quick answer to the how do I get an agent? question, here is what I have to tell you:

If you are a writer just starting out, you are not getting a screenwriting agent. At least, not a bona fide industry one. In all likelihood, it’s not going to happen. So stop looking. Literary agents are, for the most part, not looking for you. Yet. Not at this stage of your screenwriting journey, anyway. 

Now before anyone jumps to conclusions that this is one of those “you can’t get repped, you can’t break, in, stop trying and walk away from the whole thing” situations, slow your roll. This is not about that. My job is a testament to the fact that new screenwriters break in every day. My heart has always been with writers breaking in, and I am proud to tell you that my job is a very happy one. So let me be clear: You can get repped. You can build a screenwriting career. But in all likelihood, that journey is not going to start with a screenwriting agent. 

What do I mean? Let me explain: If you don’t yet have credits, have not staffed on a TV show or done industry OWA’s, if you have no tangible traction in the professional space such as a placement on The Black List (the list, not the website), and certainly if you don’t yet have a literary manager, a literary agent in all likelihood is not going to look to sign you. For most literary agents, you are just not going to be far enough in your pursuit of your screenwriting career just yet.

For the sake of this blogpost, let’s breakdown the agenting landscape: 

We have our Top 3 Agencies (which used to be the Top 4 before CAA and ICM Consolidated). Those are: CAA, WME, UTA. Always jockeying for position of who takes the #1 position. Agents in those agencies (and in the tier below) are often able to make their names and keep their jobs by consistently meeting sales goals, which means one thing: Booking revenue. And revenue is most consistently booked for screen and TV writers who have booked revenue before. So even if a junior manager at one of these institutions shows interest in you, before you’ve broken in and started earning income they are just not incentivized to work hard for you. Agents are in the incoming call business. Producers, executives, showrunners, calling with offers of business. Building a screenwriting career is entirely an outgoing call business. 

Look past the Top 3, and now we have the the 4-10 or 5-12 or… whatever we want to call them, and depending on the moment in which you are looking at the landscape because with A3 folding earlier in 2024, we are reminded that those things change constantly. These are mid-level agencies, including Verve, Gersh, APA, Paradigm and Innovative just to name a few. They, too, are usually in the business of signing writers who have already gained some tractions in their screenwriting career, though here there are exceptions such as Verve’s David Boxerbaum who has, in his storied career, plucked a few writers out of obscurity, though that too is not something that happens with any regularity, as David currently has a slew of name writers on his list. 

These mid-levels are followed by a slew of smaller boutique agencies, some of whom bolster promising, upwardly mobile agents with their sights set on moving up to midlevel or top agencies later in their career. Their effectiveness advocating for their clients in the professional space is evidenced by the writers currently on their lists and reflected in those writer’s careers. 

While there is an exception for every rule in this industry, most writers will come to literary agents via their literary manager, or later, when their career is off and running, will be pursued by agents eager to bring those writers to their lists. When I look back at my working writers paths to their literary agents, it is usually through an literary manager who found them through a referral, screenwriting competition or fellowship, connected with them via online pitches or a query letter, and then worked with the writer to prepare them and their work for the professional space. Then, when the time was right, said manager approached a literary agent on their client’s behalf. And even then, getting signed by an agency is not guaranteed. It’s not uncommon for a literary manager to champion a screenwriter’s career on their own, until the writer is well positioned to bring a literary agent onto their team. Other paths to literary agents are often driven by referrals provided by entertainment lawyers, producers, directors or executives recommending a writer they deem ready to a literary agent, though those recommendations often do go to managers first. 

So let’s ask that question again: 

How do I get a literary agent? 

My answer: 

If you don’t yet have bona fide industry credits or traction, a literary agent is not what you should be looking for. In order to build your screenwriting career, look for a passionate, hard working literary manager first, as in early career stages those are the representatives who are promised to help you move your screenwriting career forward.